Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

200 years of The Language of Flowers

The Language of Flowers, in which each flower had its own meaning, was a way in which people could supposedly send messages using appropriately chosen blossoms or bouquets.  It had its heyday in Victorian times, but books on the Language continue to be published; why do publishers do this (presumably they hope the books will be profitable) and who buys them?

Bearing these questions in mind it was pleasing to receive a review copy of  S. Theresa Dietz’s The Complete Language of Flowers – A Definitive and Illustrated History, first published by Wellfleet Press in 2020, and republished, apparently as a new edition, by the same publisher in 2022.  Wellfleet is an inprint of The Quarto Group:  ‘Brimming with creative inspiration, how-to projects, and useful information to enrich your everyday life, … a favorite destination for those pursuing their interests and passions.’

The Language was first made popular by the publication of Charlotte de Latour’s Le Language des Fleurs, in Paris in 1819.  This was quickly followed by a number of rival publications, so that twenty years later Catharine Harbeson Waterman could claim in her Flora’s Lexicon that the Language had ‘recently attracted so much attention, that an acquaintance with it seems to be deemed, if not an essential part of polite education, at least a graceful accomplishment’.

However, by as early as the 1820s different meanings  were ascribed to the same plant; acacia could mean ‘platonic love’ or ‘anxiety’.  Depending on the book consulted passionflower, Passiflora caerulea, could mean ‘faith’, ‘religious superstition’ or ‘meditation’.  Thus a blossom or bouquet could be interpreted in different ways according to which book its recipient consulted. Indeed, to avoid such confusion, in Teleny, an ‘erotic tale’ set in Paris in the 1870s, the main character sent a ‘basket of flowers with a book explaining their meaning’ to a ballet-girl who was paying him unwanted attention, to let her know that  his ‘love was elsewhere’.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are few records of the Language being used.  A rare example of its use is in May 1868 when Rose La Touche tried to communicate with John Ruskin by sending him a package of flowers, but he was unable to interpret their meaning. However, Juliet Nicolson, in her The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911 (2006), states that at country-house weekend parties ‘the placing of a code-laden flower outside a bedroom door ensured that extra-marital sex went on with ease’.

At about the same time an extensive series of postcards, depicting lovers in appropriate poses, a flower and captions such as ‘Chrysanthemum (Yellow) – Slighted love’, appear to have been much used as a method of communication between semi-literate couples.

Moving forward a century, to Dietz’s 2022 publication, what about the Language in the twentyfirst century?  On picking the book up it appears to be attractive and well produced, but on opening it surely many potential buyers would appreciate it if the text was printed in a larger font, and if the illustrations were larger (was the original 2020 edition printed in a larger format?).  The book’s introduction states that it ‘intends to be an enjoyably attractive and informative reference book, consolidating the diverse and occasionally contradictory data gleaned with regard to the topic over the past two decades’. The next section is entitled ‘How to use this book’; readers might hope for advice on how to prepare a bouquet for a potential lover, or to leave on a colleague’s desk, but this is not so, instead we are told how entries in the book are arranged.  Then follows the 224 pages which include entries arranged according to scientific names of 1001 plants.

The scientific names are accurately spelt, a rare exception being Cypripedium, which is given as Cypridedium.  Unfortunately the thumb-nail illustrations are less satisfactory, sometimes they are so small that it’s impossible to tell if they are correct or no, but in other cases, such as Armeria, Cirsium, and Calystegia sepium they are definitely incorrect and depict other species.  (How can  the last, a vigorous climber, be decribed as a ‘clumping type of cactus’?). One can sympathise with the author as even supposedly reliable picture libraries can provide misidentified images, but when authors do not know what the plant they are writing about looks like readers’ confidence in their work falters.

The common names, which include other scientific names which have been given to the plant, are interesting, but one wonders how they were selected, some which seem decidedly ‘uncommon’ are listed whereas others which are decidedly common are not included.

These are followed by ‘symbolic meanings’, presumably the core of any publication with the Language of Flowers in its title.  These are certainly ‘diverse and [more than] occasionally contradictory’. For example Dipsacus fullonum (which is, incidentally, wild teasel, not fuller’s teasel) can mean benefit, jealousy or misanthropy.  Perhaps the most useful message conveyed is avoid using the Language due to it being prone to such varied interpretations.  ‘Possible powers’ follow symbolic meanings.  It’s not very clear what this section is about; the powers of Jasminum grandiflorum are listed as love, money, and prophetic dreams.  Presumably growing, wearing, or having the plant in the house, will bring all three.

The last section under each entry is ‘folklore and facts’ – ‘tidbits of factual or fictional information’, which seem to have been culled from a variety of sources and included with minimal editing.  Finally there is a list of works consulted, and indexes of common flower names, and common flower meanings.

Returning to the question who buys such books?  After carefully reading The Complete Language of Flowers, it’s still difficult to provide an answer.  It seems probable that these books are primarily gift books, bought as presents for friends and relatives known to have an interest in plants, but who are, perhaps, unable to get out much to enjoy them.

Your comments would be appreciated; please send them to vickery330@btinternet.com

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Much of the material included the early paragraphs here is  derived from Roy Vickery, ‘Plants in Culture’, in A. Giesecke & D.J. Mabberley (eds), A Cultural History of Plants 6: 127-46, 2022.

Images:  main, front cover of S. Theresa Dietz’s The Complete Language of Flowers (2022); upper inset, postcard printed in France, sent by Harold Carver, ‘on active service’ to his wife in Green End, Hertfordshire, September 1919; second  image from top, ‘Trichromatic P.C. by J. Welch & Sons, Portsmouth, printed at our works in Belgium’, sent from Dorcester, Dorset, to Mr W. Bird, Mere, Wiltshire, July 1905; third image from top, reverse of card; fourth image from top, entry in Dietz’s book; lowest image, back cover of Dietz’s book.

Edited 11 June 2024.